Managing Self-Doubt: 3 Strategies


Maggie Sim

Maggie Sim

Managing self-doubt is a life-skill. When we are not managing self-doubt resourcefully, it limits our potential and choices in life. It stops us from pursuing what we want to create a successful and purposeful life. It also wreaks havoc on our emotional, mental and physical health by contributing to increased levels of anxiety, frustration and dissatisfaction. Self-doubt has the effect of keeping people stuck in a place that they want to get out of. We don’t want that, do we?

People have asked me if it is possible to ‘overcome self-doubt’ – for example, reach a state where one doesn’t feel self-doubt. Personally, I don’t think it to be a good thing to be experiencing no self-doubt as this suggests that you are tucked safely in your comfort zone and is not taking any risks necessary to grow.

managing self-doubt

Self-doubt serves a purpose. When we have the ability to manage self-doubt in a way where it operates at a healthy level, it becomes a signal for us to pause, perform a “threat assessment” on our environment to see if we are in any danger, before we move on. It helps to avoid arrogance, over-confidence, carelessness. What many people experience is an unhealthy level of self-doubt which debilitates them.

In my previous post, I wrote about understanding where self-doubt comes from so that we learn strategies to manage it resourcefully. Self-doubt stems from the amygdala, the part of our brain that helps us detect danger in our environment. Unless we yank out our brain, self-doubt is very much a presence in our lives. The question here is this – what role do we let self-doubt play in our lives? A resourceful role, or an unresourceful role?

Instead of eradicating self-doubt, I believe in ‘managing self-doubt’ so that it functions at a healthy level that is enabling as opposed to debilitating. For people who experience unhealthy levels of self-doubt in their lives, what strategies or techniques can they use to move the needle back to the healthy side? I am sharing three simple strategies to start us off.

#1 You have a skills gap.

managing self-doubt

In my previous post about understanding self-doubt, I asked: “How does self-doubt manifest itself in your experience?” Do you hear a voice saying ‘I can’t do this…I am going to fail….?’ Or do you see an image where the moment of “failure” presents itself in a visual such as your boss giving you negative feedback? Or do you feel sensations in your body described as a pounding in your head or queasiness in your gut? Whatever feedback you are getting in your sensory experience, the big message is “I CANNOT DO THIS. I AM NOT GOOD ENOUGH”.

And well, you are probably RIGHT.

YOU CANNOT DO THIS YET because you have a skills gap. YOU ARE NOT GOOD ENOUGH YET because you have a skills gap. One of the keys to releasing you from self-doubt prison lies in the singular word ‘YET’. Self-doubt is sending a signal that you don’t know how to do something YET. Read my previous post about “I can’t” versus “I don’t know”.

It is normal to experience some form of self-doubt when we are trying out something new or different from what we are used to or comfortable with. There is uncertainty and there is unknown so your amygdala starts to do its job of sensing danger. If we dig deeper, what is the amygdala really saying? It is probably saying: “Hey buddy, there are some important things here that you MIGHT NOT HAVE YET which you must have in order to survive through this uncertainty. You are NOT GOOD ENOUGH YET about some important things and need to get better at it.”

Most people fail to hear the ‘YET’ part of the message because their brain is likely to have deleted, distorted or generalised this crucial piece of information based on their existing filters. So all they hear is “I CANNOT. I AM NOT GOOD ENOUGH” and remain locked in self-doubt prison.

When we experience self-doubt, it is more often than not that we are worried about something. What specifically are we worried about? The typical culprits of ‘failure or rejection’, and ‘being not good enough’ come to mind. We are worried about failure or not being good enough because we suck at something. There is a skills gap! And the way to plug the gap is to get better at what you suck at. It might be a new skill that you have to learn. Or an existing skill that is rusty and needs more practice. Or it could be a super important piece of information that you haven’t yet quite understood.

Managing self-doubt is about identifying your skills gaps. If you are not clear to you what it is you have to get better at, find an external resource such as a mentor or a coach to help you get clarity.

managing self-doubt

For example, someone I worked with experienced regular bouts of self-doubt about making presentations at work. Giving presentations to senior stakeholders were necessary for her career growth, and she was so fearful of tripping up and having others think her incompetent. We went through this big exercise of working through what was at the heart of her self-doubt in relation to making presentations. Was this about her having insufficient subject matter expertise? No – she knows her stuff inside-out. Was this about her being inarticulate? No – she has been receiving good feedback about her public speaking skills. Was it unfamiliarity with the presentation content? No – she rehearses her presentation thoroughly in advance.

We kept hammering at it and finally, hit the nail on the head. What she was really afraid of was in not being able to respond skilfully to members in the audience who expressed differing views or disagreement with her. When that occurs during the presentation, she becomes tongue-tied. Not being able to provide a satisfactory response at that point in time made her feel foolish and incompetent. So she was constantly worrying about the possibility of someone in the audience disagreeing or challenging her and showing her up as being incompetent. She didn’t realise that she had a skills gap around managing specific types of Q&A.

It was a light-bulb moment for her. This big vague message around ‘I am no good at presentations’ came down to ‘I am missing a strategy to manage Q&A during presentations’. This is what we call ‘chunking down’ in NLP.

Most of the time, people tell me they don’t know what could be creating the self-doubt they are experiencing. That is because they have not thought hard about this question before. Even when they do, they might not really know how to go about finding the answer on their own. We need a guide to help us sort through our thinking processes effectively.

If it’s not a skills gap that is triggering the self-doubt, then you could have a problem with your belief systems.

#2 Embrace the ‘suck’.

When we are missing a skill or capability necessary for us to manage self-doubt and take the step forward, we have to simply accept that we are just going to ‘suck’ at things for a while. Until we have reached a level of competence in the skill. The brain needs to create new and deep neural pathways to embed a skill and this takes time and practice.

Some people have an unreasonable expectation that they should go from ‘little or no skill’ to ‘mastery of skill’ immediately. To get to the latter, one needs to move through the learning stages of unconscious incompetence (didn’t know skill was needed) to conscious incompetence (little skill or suck at skill) to conscious competence (good at skill) before hitting unconscious competence (mastery). Getting from conscious incompetence to conscious competence requires practice over a period of time.

In the meantime, sit with the ‘suck’. Managing self-doubt is about embracing the ‘suck’. It is OK to suck when we are learning something new.

Again, if you think it is not OK to suck when learning something new, you might have a bigger problem around your belief systems.

#3 Success comes before confidence

managing self-doubt

Many people think that confidence comes before success. So they wait for themselves to feel confident before they embark on doing the thing. What if success comes before confidence? Meaning you feel self-doubt yet continue to do the thing anyway, see a measure of success from doing the thing and that gives you the confidence that you can do the thing.

Our brain is programmed to search the Universe for evidence of what we are able or unable to do. If we want the brain to locate evidence of our ability to do something new, we have to supply our brain with the evidence. The way to do so is to take small baby steps and demonstrate success. With each success story, our brain builds up an inventory of examples that we are able to do the thing or have the internal resources to navigate new and un-chartered waters. Managing self-doubt is about creating success stories, repeatedly. Successes, big and small, breed confidence.

This is a key reason why it is so important for us to try new things, take calculated risks, step out of comfort zone regularly – we exercise the mental muscle that allows us to step fully into the thing that we fear or worry about and go over it. Managing self-doubt is an activity that we have to keep doing.

Self-doubt resides inside of us and it is up to us to re-size it, down-size it, or upsize it (like a McDonald’s Happy meal).

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